Gowns, Grammar and Graduation

After yesterday’s post about the fascinating story of the recipient of an honorary degree, I thought I’d add a few personal comments about last week’s graduation ceremony for the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex, at which I had the pleasure of presenting the graduands. Graduation ceremonies are funny things. With all their costumes and weird traditions, they do seem a bit absurd. On the other hand, even in these modern times, we live with all kinds of  rituals and I don’t see why we shouldn’t celebrate academic achievement in this way. I love graduation ceremonies, actually. As the graduands go across the stage you realize that every one of them has a unique story to tell and a whole universe of possibilities in front of them. How their lives will unfold no-one can tell, but it’s a privilege to be there for one important milestone on their journey. Getting to read their names out is quite stressful – it may not seem like it, but I do spend quite a lot of time fretting about the correct pronunciation of the names.  It’s also a bit strange in some cases finally to put a name to a face that I’ve seen around the place regularly, just before they leave the University for good.

Anyway, here are the obligatory “mortar boards in the air” pictures of graduates and academic staff from  Physics & Astronomy and Mathematics, respectively, taken just outside the Brighton Dome shortly after the ceremony. I am actually in both of these pictures. Somewhere. I also got hit on the head twice by descending hats.


Graduation is a grammatical phenomenon too. The word “graduation” is derived from the latin word gradus meaning a step, from which was eventually made the mediaeval latin verb graduare, meaning “to take a degree”. The past participle  of this is formed via the supine graduatus, hence the English noun “graduate” (i.e. one who has taken a degree). The word graduand, on the other hand, which is used before and during the ceremony to describe those about to graduate, is from the  gerundive form graduandus meaning “to be graduated”. What really happens grammatically speaking, therefore, is that students swap their gerundives for participles, although I suspect most participants don’t think of it in quite those terms.

Graduation ceremonies are quite colourful because staff wear the gown appropriate to their highest degree. Colours and styles vary greatly from one University to another even within the United Kingdom, and there are even more variations on show when schools contain staff who got their degrees abroad. Since I got my doctorate from the University of Sussex, which was created in the 1960s, the academic garb I used to wear on these occasions  is actually quite modern-looking. With its raised collar, red ribbons and capped shoulders it’s also more than a little bit camp. It often brought  a few comments when I participated in the academic procession prior to graduation, but I usually replied by saying I bought the outfit at Ann Summers. Here is a picture of me wearing the old-style Sussex doctoral gown just after I received my DPhil in 1989 at a ceremony at the Brighton Centre:


Unfortunately the University decided to change the style recently to something a bit more standard, as demonstrated in this picture from yesterday’s post:

John Francis receiving his Honorary Doctorate from the Chancellor, Sanjeev Bhaskar.

John Francis receiving his Honorary Doctorate from the Chancellor, Sanjeev Bhaskar.

That’s me on the far left, in case you didn’t realise. I still feel a bit uncomfortable wearing academic dress that’s different from what I wore for my graduation. I did mention this once to the Vice Chancellor and he said that it would be perfectly alright if I wore the old style instead. The problem is that I never actually bought the gown and Ede & Ravescroft, who supply the gear for such occasions, no longer provide it. Perhaps I should try to find a second-hand one somewhere?

Graduation of course isn’t just about dressing up. Nor is it only about recognising academic achievement. It’s also a rite of passage on the way to adulthood and independence, so the presence of the parents at the ceremony adds another emotional dimension to the goings-on. Although everyone is rightly proud of the achievement – either their own in the case of the graduands or that of others in the case of the guests – there’s also a bit of sadness to go with the goodbyes. It always seems that as a lecturer you are only just getting to know students by the time they graduate, but that’s enough to miss them when they go.

I’ve also been through two graduations on the other side of the fence, as it were. My first degree came from Cambridge so I had to participate in the even more archaic ceremony for that institution. The whole thing is done in Latin there (or was when I graduated) and involves each graduand holding a finger held out by their College’s Praelector and then kneeling down in front of the presiding dignitary, who is either the Vice-Chancellor ot the Chancellor. I can’t remember which. It’s also worth mentioning that although I did Natural Sciences (specialising in Theoretical Physics), the degree I got was Bachelor of Arts. Other than that, and the fact that the graduands walk to the Senate House from their College through the streets of Cambridge,  I don’t remember much about the actual ceremony.

I was very nervous for that first graduation. The reason was that my parents had divorced some years before and my Mum had re-married. My Dad wouldn’t speak to her or her second husband. Immediately after the ceremony there was a garden party at my college, Magdalene, at which the two parts of my family occupied positions at opposite corners of the lawn and I scuttled between them trying to keep everyone happy. It was like that for the rest of the day and I have to say it was very stressful. A few years later I got my doctorate (actually DPhil) from the University of Sussex, at the Brighton Centre on the seafront. It was pretty much the same deal again with the warring family factions, but I enjoyed the whole day a lot more that time. And I got to wear the funny gown.

Anyway, apologies for going all biographical. My main purpose for writing this post was to thank Thursday’s graduands graduates for the many kind comments and to offer my heartiest congratulations to those I didn’t get to talk to in person. If you are a recent graduate from the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences then please do stay in touch and let us know how you get on in the big wide world!

5 Responses to “Gowns, Grammar and Graduation”

  1. Phillip Helbig Says:

    You crossed “graduands” but didn’t replace it with anything. Maybe some of the graduates feel that way now. 😐

  2. You said: “My first degree came from Cambridge so I had to participate in the even more archaic ceremony for that institution. The whole thing is done in Latin there (or was when I graduated) and involves each graduand holding a finger held out by their College’s Praelector and then kneeling down in front of the presiding dignitary…”
    I can confirm that Cambridge continues with their ‘archaic graduation ceremony’ that is exactly as you described it;
    I found out this recently during my daughter’s graduation.

    • telescoper Says:

      I doubt if Cambridge will ever change!

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        While tradition has its place, sometimes it is time to move on. If at best only a couple of people in the audience understand Latin, what is the point of using it? English is the international language of science today, like Latin was during a certain time in the past. (And there was a while when German was the international scientific language.) Even the people reading the Latin texts often don’t understand them, unless they have read a translation in advance.

        I was in Prague when Donald Lynden-Bell was awarded an honorary doctorate, and the ceremony itself was in Latin. The MC actually stopped briefly and apologized in English for the fact, IIRC remarking that Czech would be essentially the same for most of the audience (most of which had come from a GR conference taking place during the week). I was hoping that Donald would give his speech in perfect Latin (it wouldn’t surprise me if he has it in him), which would have highlighted the absurdity, but, alas, it was in his customary loud English voice.

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